Johnny Marr kicked off the evening he shared with Ben Thompson at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music by donning his guitar and playing one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time. It was a surreal moment and an opportunity I never thought I would have to hear This Charming Man being played by the man who wrote it. This act set the tone for the evening, as from this point on the packed house were won over and hanging on every anecdote shared and melody created.
The conversation began by taking a look at Marr’s childhood in different areas of Greater Manchester. Jumping from theme to theme, the two on stage tried to dissect things such as the influence of his Irish family history on the young Marr, as well as how he was affected by sexuality and gender politics. The story he told of how, through the influence of his sister, he arrived at the music of Nile Rodgers was particularly enthralling, as he painted a vivid image of life as a teen in Manchester in the early eighties. Marr spoke eloquently and thoughtfully on the subjects that were posed to him, whilst being able to poke fun at himself too, this self-mockery making the musical legend feel more human and down to earth than I had anticipated.
The discussion quickly segued to the topic of The Smiths – understandable, as Marr was only eighteen at the time the band started. Fans of the band were certainly not left wanting as he played snippets of songs such as Hand in Glove and Heaven Knows I am Miserable Now. On top of this, he had an array of guitars lined up that he willingly talked us through – my personal favourite being a Fender Telecaster that can be seen in the video for Nowhere Fast, and that according to Marr had not seen the light of day since the eighties. Marr then told us the story of how he and Morrissey met when attending a Patti Smith gig, and how they formed an immediate bond. Stories of Marr’s partying then ensued with a particularly funny anecdote about the exponential relationship between his hair and his cocaine use. Of course the subject of the break up was discussed, but Marr was unwilling to go over old territory and only had positives to say about his oldest mate Andy Rourke.
With the evening drawing to a close, the mic was passed out to the floor for questions. As luck would have it, the final question grabbed Marr’s interest the most, as he was asked to recall his experience whilst working at Strawberry Studios in the early days of the Smiths. As if to prove his touch for the poetic had not left him, he told us a tale in which he and Morrissey walked the streets of Stockport on cold grey nights as they made their way to the studio. Perhaps it was those very evenings that provided the inspiration for William, It Was Really Nothing, in which Marr’s bittersweet chimes combine perfectly with the opening lyrics, “The rain falls hard on a humdrum town”.